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A Brief History of Conference Realignment, Part 5: The Carolignians and the Carolinas

A Brief History of Conference Realignment is a study of how we got where we are today, the traditions that we are burning like bridges in the chase for television money and the ones we burned long ago for far stupider reasons.

When he died in 814 AD, Charlemagne had taken the existing Frankish Empire, then spread over modern day France, Switzerland, and southern Germany, and expanded it into Northern Italy, most of Germany, Austria, and northern Spain, creating what would eventually become the Carolignian Empire. When his sole heir, Louis the Pious, died with three heirs to his throne in 840 AD, it set off a brief civil war between the brothers that was eventually decided with the Treaty of Verdun. Charles the Bald took the western portion of the empire. Louis the German took the east. Lothair took Italy and a long, narrow tract through the middle of Europe. The division was made without regard to ethnic differences, languages, or previous political affiliation. It was, for the most part, completely arbitrary.

For the next 1100 years, the arbitrary division agreement reached at Verdun dominated Western Civilization. Charles the Bald's kingdom became France. Louis the German, unsurprisingly, oversaw what would become Germany. Lothair's lands became the disputed territory for most of the European wars of the second millenium: Belgium, The Netherlands, Alsace-Lorraine, and the southern French-northern Italian border contested repeatedly by Napoleon. The entire concept of nationalism effectively began in France during the revolution and spread to Germany and Italy within 200 years, as each region had created its own language, culture, and custom over time independent of the others. The entire map of the modern world and western European history for more than a thousand years was decided by an arbitrary division of a map between three petulant brothers.


The Southern Conference in 1930 was its own Carolignian Empire: 23 universities stretched across the entirety of Dixieland, with a wide diversity of sizes, strengths, and interests. The Southern Conference football teams did not play a fixed number of in-conference games, and certainly did not attempt a round robin. Basketball was an important sport, for many more important than football. There were widening differences in culture and custom throughout the SoCon through the 1920s and early 1930s.

The conference's Treaty of Verdun came in 1932, when the major universities south and west of the Appalachian Mountains seceded to form the SEC: Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Florida, LSU, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Tulane, Georgia Tech, and Sewanee. The secession effectively cut the conference in half at the Appalachian Mountains and the Georgia-South Carolina border, an arbitrary geographic divide chosen by the seceding schools:

C.P. "Sally" Miles of Virginia Tech, president of the Southern Conference, called the annual league meeting to order on Dec. 9, 1932 at the Farragut Hotel in Knoxville, Tenn. Georgia's Dr. Sanford announced that 13 institutions west and south of the Appalachian Mountains were reorganizing as the Southeastern Conference....

According to the minutes of the meeting, Dr. Sanford stated that the division was made along geographical lines. Florida's Dr. J.J. Tigert, acting as spokesman for the withdrawing group, regretted the move but believed it was necessary as the Southern Conference had grown too large. The resignations were accepted and the withdrawing schools formed the new league which began play in 1932.

The remaining ten schools -- Virginia, North Carolina, Duke, Virginia Tech, Clemson, NC State, South Carolina, Maryland, Washington and Lee, and VMI -- continued on under the Southern Conference banner for another 21 years. The conference added seven teams in 1936: Wake Forest, George Washington, Richmond, The Citadel, Davidson, William & Mary, and Furman. All came from the same footprint, but the influx of small colleges spelled the conference's doom. Arguments between the small, private schools and large state institutions (including West Virginia, which joined the conference in 1950) pulled the membership apart. Bowl games favored the larger schools; with bowl revenue withheld by the participating institution, the larger schools were getting an inherent advantage. This is the first time that revenues led to realignment. It would not be the last.

In 1950, tiny Washington & Lee won the Southern Conference football championship, but the Orange Bowl took Clemson and left Washington & Lee without a postseason game. In response, the Southern Conference banned postseason play in all sports. It might as well have put a gun to its head. In 1951, Clemson and Maryland went to bowl games against the league's order, and the conference attempted to suspend them for the 1952 season. Maryland spent most of the 1952 season playing the SEC. Clemson played a hodgepodge schedule, but an act of the South Carolina assembly required that the annual South Carolina-Clemson game be played as scheduled, despite the league's admonition. When the league responded by attempting to suspend Clemson for 1953, the big schools had had enough. The ACC was formed in May 1953, with North Carolina, Maryland, Clemson, NC State, Duke, Wake Forest, and South Carolina as charter members. Virginia, which had left the Southern Conference to play as an independent in 1937, joined one year later.

The conference quickly became a basketball powerhouse, with Frank McGuire's North Carolina and Everett Case's NC State leading the way. After North Carolina won the national championship in 1957, a regional network dedicated to ACC basketball was formed by the exquisitely-named Castleman D. Chesley, drastically increasing the popularity of the sport across the conference's footprint. Future Big Ten president Jim Delany played on the network as a member of the North Carolina basketball team in the late 1960s. Clearly, he took note.

ACC membership, like most conferences from the 1950s until the 1990s, remained relatively stable. There were, however, disputes. Frank McGuire left North Carolina in 1961 to coach the then-Philadelphia Warriors in the NBA. When the team moved to San Francisco in 1964, McGuire stayed east and eventually took over at South Carolina. The feud started two years later, when South Carolina's star center was ruled ineligible by the league for a low SAT score despite being admitted to the university. McGuire, who had left North Carolina after a dispute with the Tar Heels' athletic director, claimed that the decision was a shot at him from the North Carolina-centric conference. Things got worse four years later, when McGuire's team went undefeated in the ACC but lost in the conference tournament to NC State and missed the postseason despite winning 25 games. In 1971, with its program twice harmed by the conference and its legendary coach openly feuding with the league, South Carolina went independent.

Georgia Tech, which had left the SEC in 1964 to play as an independent -- we'll get to that story later, it's hilarious -- and became a charter member of the non-football Metro Conference in 1975, joined the ACC in 1978 to consolidate its sports. In 1991, Florida State -- which had been a rumored expansion target for more than 40 years but had remained independent in football --had received offers to join the SEC, ACC, and a new 16-team "super-conference" being planned by the Metro Atlantic. Despite having pleaded with the SEC for a spot for 30 years, Florida State opted to join the ACC as its ninth team. The Seminoles proceeded to win nine straight league football titles. In the football-heavy SEC -- the Germany to the ACC's France -- that would never happen.

As the ACC entered the 2000s, it was a stable league with an impressive basketball presence and -- aside from FSU -- a consistent second-tier player in football. As football took on more prominence, that stability vanished, and the ACC would kick-start the next big round of expansion.